I think there must be a little bit of needling between the respective teams at Ford and Mazda.Ford has topped the sales charts in the UK for many years and it knows it dominates the volume fleet market where it can sell Fiestas, Focuses and Mondeos all day long.
But it is facing a fresh rival from within its own organisation with the rebirth of Mazda. Since Ford took a share in the Japanese car maker, Mazda has been revitalised and is churning out a host of new products.
To rub salt into Ford's wounds, the Mazda6 was named best upper-medium car at this year's Fleet News Awards. And the new Mazda2 is a far better stab at a supermini/multi-activity vehicle than Ford's disappointing Fusion.
Later this year Mazda will also put its radical RX-8 supercar on sale, followed by a new 323 replacement, to be badged Mazda3, which will be the first lower-medium car to use the chassis of the next generation Ford Focus.
Bearing in mind the Focus' reputation for being a fine handling machine, this is quite an honour to bestow on the Mazda3.
But going back to the Mazda2, the firm is hoping to make in-roads in the supermini sector where Ford's Fiesta and Volkswagen's Polo dominate. However, in this case Ford will not be having sleepless nights about the new Mazda2 because, although it is a better car than the Fusion, it is not better than the Fiesta.
But Mazda is not hoping for massive Fiesta-rivalling sales volumes in the UK with the 2. It expects to sell 5,200 models in the UK in a full year (3,800 for 2003), giving it a fraction under 2% of the market. The diesels (badged in the same way as petrols as S, TS, TS2 and Sport) will be the smallest sellers in the range, with the three 1.4 TD-badged models accounting for 11% of sales. Despite this small sales expectation, the diesel models can help fleets save money through a Government tax break.
Companies operating vehicles which emit no more than 120g/km of CO2 (the Mazda2 diesels emit 119g/km) can claim tax relief for the depreciation of the car over the first year of its fleet life in a move designed to speed up the uptake of 'green' vehicles on fleets.
But it is petrol that will be the big seller and Mazda expects the entry-level 1.25 S to take the lion's share of sales (37%). Part of the reason the sales expectations are relatively low is because Mazda has decided to avoid putting cars into daily rental and bodyshop courtesy car fleets.
The decision to do this was to shore up residual values for the model and looking at CAP Monitor, Mazda appears to have been successful. CAP is predicting the petrol models will retain between 37% and 41% of their cost new after three years/60,000 miles while the diesels will retain between 40% and 41%. These figures compare favourably with the Fiesta (estimated at high 30%s for all models) and it easily beats the Fusion, which CAP marks down in the mid-30%s.
However, the Mazda2 cannot compete with the Volkswagen Polo on residuals, with some Polos retaining up to 47% of their cost new.
But the Mazda2's true rival is the Ford Fusion because both share the same tall body style and versatile interior layout. In all areas the 2 outclasses the Fusion. It is better looking, better built, the interior quality is streets ahead and it is better to drive, despite sharing the same engines.
Behind the wheel
Driving the Mazda2 on its UK launch should have been a pleasant affair. A sunny day dawned and a few hours of driving around the Cotswolds beckoned. All seemed to be going swimmingly but pretty soon a dark cloud descended over this glorious part of England.
I think every farmer, caravan owner and driver of exceptionally slow vehicles decided to go for a drive on the same route as me because everywhere I turned I was greeted by a convoy of slow moving traffic.
This was hardly the ideal way to put a car through its paces but it did give me time to get a closer look at Mazda's claims of high interior quality for the 2.
The dashboard is a similar affair to that found in the upper-medium 6, including plenty of silver metal on the fascia and the use of high grade plastics – a huge improvement on the brittle plastics found in the Ford Fusion.
There is also a chunky three-spoke steering wheel with stereo controls mounted on them and a pair of large silver-trimmed dials for the speedo and rev counter – very Mazda6.
On the road the 1.6-litre Sport model is the pick of the range. With 98bhp it is fizzy enough to be a lively companion and is the best option for keen drivers.
The 1.4-litre diesel felt tight and restrained in comparison, with the torque available hardly registering when you put your foot down. Unfortunately there was not enough time to test the 1.25 and 1.4-litre petrol models. There is a fair degree of body roll in all models, although I would venture that driving dynamics are not vital for a vehicle that will spend most of its time on the urban run-around.
THE Mazda2 neither excels nor disappoints in any area. It is spacious inside, well-built and generously equipped. The 1.6-litre Sport model not only looks the best with its set of stylish alloy wheels, but it is also the best to drive. Keen drivers will not find Fiesta levels of ride and handling but compared with its closest rival, the Ford Fusion, it is streets ahead.
|Mazda2 fact file|
|Max speed (mph):||101||102||112||99|
|Fuel economy (mpg):||44.8||43.5||39.8||62.8|
|Transmission:||5-sp man,||optional 5-sp auto shift manual on 1.4s|
|Service interval (miles):||12,500|
|Prices (OTR):||£8,760 - £11,995|